Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

The Long Haul: Implementing Social and Emotional Learning Programs

Teaching students to care.

February 22, 2001

Sedgwick Elementary School teacher Nancy Noto (right) models a "read aloud" as second year teacher Deyon Negato (far left) and CDP consultant Carole Lewis observes. Credit: Edutopia

How does a school community sustain "a culture of caring," despite the constant pressures of high-stakes testing, standards-based instruction, and staff turnover? It's not easy, but educators at D.J. Sedgwick Elementary School are determined to make it happen.

It was ten years ago that Anne Brown first learned about the Child Development Project (CDP). She was teaching fifth grade at Fremont Older Elementary School in Cupertino, California, when her principal first proposed implementing CDP's literature-enriched, cooperative approach to classroom instruction and management.

"I remember thinking, 'Oh great, here we go again,'" says Brown, laughing to herself as she recalls the day long ago when she and her colleagues embarked on what would be an exhilarating, challenging, and at times frustrating quest to create a new school culture.

During the coming months and years, everything from reading and mathematics lessons to classroom management practices and discipline strategies were refocused to reflect the staff's overarching goal of creating a "caring community of learners." Rigorous curriculum remained a critical focus, but values such as fairness, respect, helpfulness, and responsibility were also part of everyday lessons -- in and out of the classroom. Policies were revised and activities were introduced to foster cooperation rather than competition and to create opportunities throughout the school for warm and supportive relationships among students, staff, and families.

Eric Schaps, one of the principal architects of the Child Development Project, believes ongoing professional development opportunities are critical to the long-term success of a social and emotional learning program. Credit: Developmental Studies Center

Changing Times

Out went the marble jars for keeping track of good behavior; out went the practices of writing the names of "problem" students on the chalkboard and using competitive games and activities as enticements for everything from learning spelling words to selling candy bars for the school fundraiser. And, perhaps most difficult, out went the concept of a teacher-centered classroom in which students had little say in classroom management and organization.

In place of these time-honored practices was instituted a much more collaborative approach to learning. Math instruction was enriched with activities designed to build students' cooperative skills rather than encourage competition. Social and ethical lessons were meshed with language arts instruction, as the school began using elementary literature to teach not only reading and comprehension, but life lessons, too. (In the storybook, Mrs. Tibbles and the Special Someone, for example, first graders learn that being caring and thoughtful are more apt to make someone special than money or fame.)

Meanwhile, classroom management and discipline focused on problem-solving rather than rewards and consequences. Classes began holding morning meetings where students and their teacher came together in a deliberate and thoughtful way to build community and to ease the transition to the school day. As a group, teachers and students worked to write norms for everything from turning in assignments to being a good listener. (The resulting rubrics were posted on walls and chalkboards in every classroom.)

"For those four years, every one of our staff development workshops was connected to CDP," says Brown. Every time a new program or set of materials came down from the district, we'd ask ourselves, 'How does this fit in to what we're trying to do here? How does it fit into CDP?'"

Following a classroom observation, second-year teacher Patty Marren (left) and CDP consultant Carole Lewis (center) meet with veteran teacher Cathy Sweeney to discuss how she incorporates CDP strategies into her classroom management and curriculum. Credit: Roberta Furger

That Was Then, This Is Now

But a lot can change in ten years: Fremont Older was torn down in 1994, and much of the staff moved to the then-newly built D.J. Sedgwick Elementary, where Brown now serves as the intervention specialist. Few of Sedgwick's thirty-five teachers for the 2000-2001 school year were on staff -- or even teaching, for that matter -- when Fremont Older initiated its CDP effort. Sedgwick has remained true to its vision of creating a safe and caring learning environment, but the commitment to certain strategies and practices has started to fade over the years as staff turnover and pressures to raise student achievement have taken their toll.

Having seen the academic and emotional value of the relationship and community-building that came out of the school's early efforts, the staff at Sedgwick has launched a two-year initiative to shore up the school's CDP-centered programs and practices. They've enlisted a consultant, created an intensive staff development program for teachers, matched new and experienced teachers for one-on-one mentoring, and revisited resources and techniques for integrating the rich library of social and ethical-based literature into the school-wide effort to improve literacy skills.

Eric Schaps, president of the Developmental Studies Center in Oakland and one of the principal architects of CDP, worked with the staff of Fremont Older in the early 1990s and recognizes the challenges facing schools committed to promoting an environment rich in social-emotional learning. "These are tough times to keep a vision alive," says Schaps. "The tremendous focus on high-stakes testing competes heavily with a school's broader visions of what education ought to be about."M

Ongoing staff development and opportunities for sharing strategies and ideas are critical, he adds, to bring new teachers "into the fold" of the school culture and to reinvigorate everyone's commitment to programs and strategies.

Modeling and Mentoring

Central to Sedgwick's efforts is the pairing of second-year teachers with experienced teachers from the school's CDP support team. Mentors help their colleagues with everything from instituting morning meetings to developing class norms for accepted behavior. Coaches and their "students" also work together on curriculum and instruction, with experienced teachers modeling activities such as "read-alouds" or partner chats, where students are paired up for one-on-one sharing on a particular topic. (Teachers often bring the entire group together after a partner chat so students can share what they've learned from their partners.)

New teachers also receive one-on-one help from consultant and retired teacher Carole Lewis, who leads them through guided observations of lessons and activities led by experienced teachers.

On a cold January morning, for example, second year teacher Deyon Nagato visited Nancy Noto's classroom to observe how she initiates a classroom discussion and then leads the class in a read-aloud. Before heading to Noto's first-grade room, though, Lewis offers Nagato some advice. "Watch how Nancy brings the students into the discussion. Pay attention to how she creates an environment where everyone feels safe and welcome to contribute," she says.

Indeed, as Noto's class prepares to read the book, The Sign Maker's Assistant, they launch into a lively discussion of times when they have served as an apprentice. Some students talk about helping a parent cook or clean the house; others talk of helping to care for a younger sibling. Noto shares her own experience as an apprentice to a more experienced teacher. "I would watch her teach her class and she would offer suggestions. I even got to practice teaching while she was in the room."

As the discussion winds down, Noto sets the stage for the story she is preparing to read about a young apprentice who gets carried away with his sign-making and wreaks havoc on his once orderly town. Throughout the story, students jump in with questions and comments, occasionally asking for clarification. When some of the students get a little squirmy, Noto just advises them to "check themselves." In no time, they're back with their legs crossed and their eyes transfixed on their teacher as she continues with the engaging story.

As the story ends, Lewis and Nagato head into the staff room for a debriefing session where they review what they observed. Over the course of the morning, Lewis conducts a similar guided observation with two other new teachers, each time taking care to answer questions and identify strategies. Later on during their lunch break, the teachers share the benefits of the guided observations and mentoring program. "It gives me an opportunity to see what it looks like to teach a particular lesson," says one second-year teacher. "I learn from it, too," adds a veteran. "It prompts me to reflect on my teaching and to look for new approaches instead of always doing the same old thing."

Next Steps: Integration With Standards

The final component of Sedgwick's efforts is perhaps the most ambitious task of all: to integrate the school's commitment to social-emotional learning with its efforts to improve literacy for all students -- and ultimately, to boost student scores on standardized tests.

To that end, teachers Jennifer Rivera and Amy Walczak work once a week with a team of three classroom teachers on improving reading comprehension within a caring community. Each Sedgwick teacher is released three times a year for this in-depth work. During the first round of release time, Walczak and Rivera focused on the use of the Developmental Studies Center's literature programs, "Reading, Thinking, and Caring" and "Reading for Real."

"We talk about the social and ethical focus of classroom discussions and about using literature for more than just basic skills," explains Rivera.

Rivera and Walczak will hold two more workshops for their colleagues, focusing on a variety of reading comprehension strategies, including making connections, questioning, visualizing, inferring, determining importance, and synthesizing. They'll pull in CDP materials and activities to reinforce the connection between the school's values and culture and its academic goals.

It's a difficult -- and at times daunting -- process, but one that Sedgwick Principal Lynn Shimada and the Sedgwick leadership team are committed to pursuing.

Do they get discouraged? Absolutely.

Even Brown has moments when she wonders if it's all worth it. "Sometimes I think we ought to just let it go," she confesses at the end of a planning meeting. "But then I hear a parent talking about the ways two kids resolved a problem at a soccer game or I see kids working through a problem on the playground. That's when I realize all over again that it's all worth it."

Roberta Furger is a contributing writer for Edutopia.

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  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • Classroom Management
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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